In the four years that I have been publishing a review each Friday, 2013 was the most satisfying for the sheer pleasure of reading. And I confess what better reason to read books. Before I list my favorite books, however, let me mention the increasing obstacles that writers and publishers face. I doubt if it has ever been so difficult to get a novel, a collection of short stories, or a volume of poetry published in the United States or England, as it is today—certainly not in recent decades. A recent issue of Publishers Weekly chronicles the saga of Donal Ryan, whose novel, The Spinning Heart, was rejected by over sixty publishers before the book was accepted by a small Irish publishing house. Subsequently, the situation for Ryan greatly improved, including literary awards and planned publication of the novel in the United States this spring.
Things are not much better in the United States. In fact, I can only cry when I read the results of a recent poll, “Surprising Book Facts,” which someone sent me from a website called “Unsettled Christianity.” The figures were published without explanation: how the poll was conducted, who collected and processed the information. But here are the grim conclusions: “33% of high school graduates never read another book the rest of their lives; 42% of college grads never read another book after college; 57% of new books are not read to completion; 70% of US adults have not read a book in the last five years; 80% of US families did not buy a book last year; the more a child reads, the likelier they (sic) are able to understand the emotions of others; reading one hour per day in your chosen field will make you an international expert in 7 years.” Ignoring the final two assumptions, I have to conclude that my future as a Book Critic does not bode well for subsequent generations.
If you’re an American writer, there is still one more obstacle. Turning again to a recent Publishers Weekly, I cite the situation in which David Vann, a gifted American writer, has found himself. I’ve only read one of Vann’s novels—Dirt (2012), which I reviewed and praised here—but Vann has published several other novels, been translated into close to 20 languages, won prestigious European literary awards, but is hardly known or read here in the United States, the country he writes about so disturbingly well. Maybe that’s the reason. American readers want happy endings to their novels, nothing unsettling. I could go into great lengths about the way that Pollyannaish approach to life has spilled over into our pathetic political situation, but I’ll pass on that for now. I do understand fully, however, the desire that all writers (no matter their nationality) have to be read by their own people. That’s the problem that has confronted many non-Western writers for decades but now it appears (from Vann’s case and the evidence of others) that American writers may have to find their audience outside the United States.
Still, I count myself fortunate to have read so many outstanding books this year. At the top of the list is Pakistani novelist Nadeem Aslam’s fourth novel, The Blind Man’s Garden, a powerful account of the lives of several Pakistani males caught between the mores of the largely secular West and Muslim jihad. No one writes about the great misunderstandings between Islam and the West with such understanding and compassion as Nadeem Aslam. Although I believe that The Blind Man’s Garden is a good place to begin reading the brilliant writer, his two earlier novels, Maps for Lost Lovers (2004) and The Wasted Vigil (2008) will work just as well. What Aslam has going for him, besides his subject matter, is gorgeous prose.
The novel I would rank second of all the ones I reviewed this year is Hanya Yanagihara’s People in the Trees, a dazzling page-turner but, also, an intellectually-probing account of a scientist’s discovery of a tribe of forgotten people on a remote Pacific island. The made-up history of these people (complete with “academic” footnotes) reveals the depths of Yanagihara’s staggering imagination. I had some reservations about several of the statements the author made about ethical issues of so-called primitive people vs. the priorities of science, but those were quibbles—not with the novel itself but the complex issues the narrative addresses. The author’s creative genius is on full display on every page of this unforgettable novel.
Curiously, for reasons I cannot even speculate, these novels by Aslam and Yanagihara were ignored by a number of the major reviewing outlets. So the coverage the novels should have received falls back into the category that David Vann cited about his own works. However, once again turning to Publishers Weekly, both The Blind Man’s Garden and People in the Trees were recently cited among “PW’s Best Books 2013.” That is also true of several other novels I reviewed this past year: Sea of Hooks, by Lindsay Hill; A Constellation of Vital Phenomena, by Anthony Marra; The Silence and the Roar, by Nihad Sirees; Claire of the Sea Light, by Edwidge Danticat; and Submergence, by J. M. Ledgard. The first two of these five novels are close runners to Aslam’s and Yanagihara’s novels. I also need to cite at least two of the non-fiction works I wrote about in 2013: James Agee’s Cotton Tenants: Three Families and Sasha Abramsky’s How the Other Half Still Lives. These two books lead to more responses from CounterPunch readers than most of the other books I reviewed.
For me, how can I explain the pleasure of reading two or three books each week and picking one to write about? Pure heaven. But I mourn the decrease of humanities majors at our universities and colleges and the declining readership in the United States—particularly of serious literature. And I can’t even imagine what it’s going to be like for young writers to get published in the future. Those of us who read can help by continuing to buy books and encouraging young children, especially, to get hooked on reading as early as possible.
So, on to 2014.
Charles R. Larson is Emeritus Professor of Literature at American University in Washington, D.C. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.